Dare the School Build a New Social Order?: A Reckoning 86 Years Later

The candidacy seemed at the time nothing more than sideshow, perverse reality TV, and then Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president, prompting many pundits to note that as a death knoll for the Republican Party.

Yet, Trump was elected president.

During the primaries and throughout his run against Hillary Clinton, Trump proved to be relentlessly dishonest, a liar. However, mainstream media avoided calling a lie “a lie,” including major media outlets directly arguing against such language. President Trump hasn’t budged from overstatement, misleading statements, and outright lies.

Notably, major media publish Trump’s lies as if they are credible, despite fact-checking exposing lie upon lie upon lie.

Early on, many opposing Trump called for media simply to call out the lies. Here is the truly bad news, however.

During my Tuesday role as caregiver for my 2-year-old grandson, I flipped through my cable channels during his nap for a brief reprieve from NickJr. I paused on CNN, even though I loath all of the 24-hour news shows.

What caught my ear was that the newscaster was repeatedly calling Trump our for lies, using the word “lie”—over and over. This, I felt, was a real new normal I had called for, but never expected.

Next, the newscaster replayed a segment from the day before focusing on a fact checker of Trump’s many, many lies. The fact checker noted a truly disturbing fact: Trump’s supporters, he explained, recognize that Trump lies, but doesn’t mind the lies; in fact, Trump’s supporters revel in those lies because, as the fact checker emphasized, this drives liberals crazy.

It is here that I must stress two points: (1) It appears those of us believing that exposing Trump as a liar would somehow derail his presidency were sorely mistaken, and (2) we are now entering a phase of U.S. history in which the long-standing slur of “liberal” is code for taking evidence-based stances, especially if those evidence-based stances swim against the current of American ideology and mythology.

Let me offer a couple example.

In my own public and scholarly work, contexts that prompt responses that discount me as a “liberal” (with false implications that I am a partisan Democrat), I have made repeated and compelling cases against corporal punishment and school-only safety measures.

Neither of these issues is both-sides debates since the research base is overwhelmingly one-sided.

Corporal punishment is not an effective discipline technique, and it creates violent youth and adults. A powerful body research prompted by the school shooting at Columbine and including studies by the Secret Service reject school-only safety measure such as security guards, surveillance cameras, active-shooter drills, and metal detectors, all of which are not deterrents and may even create violence.

Therefore, to embrace evidence-based positions on corporal punishment and school safety is the liberal or progressive (seeking change) stance, while the traditional or conservative (maintaining established practices) positions (ignoring the evidence) cling to corporal punishment and fortifying schools while refusing to address the wider influences of communities and our national mania for guns.

Let’s consider that last point more fully next.

There is an unpopular and upsetting fact driving why school-only safety measures are futile: K-12 and higher education are essentially conservative.

Despite political and popular scapegoating of all formal education as liberal, the evidence of nearly a century reveals that all forms of school more often than not reflect the communities and society they serve. In no real ways, then, do schools meet the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hollow mantra that education is the great equalizer, some sort of silver bullet for change.

Evidence shows that at different levels of educational attainment, significant gaps persist among racial categories and those gaps are even more pronounced once race and gender are included (see p. 34).

In the 1930s, a golden era for idealism about communism and socialism in the U.S. after the stock market crash, major educational thinkers such as John Dewey (a socialist) and George Counts championed the potential for progressive education (Dewey) to shape U.S. democracy, and then for social reconstruction (Counts) to reshape the nation, as Counts detailed in his Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932).

As an early critical voice, Counts spoke to the educational goals that appealed to me as I eventually found critical pedagogy in my doctoral program and doubled down on my early commitment to be the sort of educator who fostered change with and through my students.

Yet, here I sit in 2018, 86 years after Counts’s manifesto. And the U.S. is being led by a pathological liar supported by more and more people who directly say they don’t care about lies or evidence because it makes liberal mad.

This is the pettiness our country has wrought, despite more people today being formally educated than at any time in U.S. history.

My 35 years and counting as an educator, part as a high school teacher and now in higher education, have been a disappointing lesson that answers Counts’s titular question with a resounding “no.”

I shared with my foundations education class the proofs of a chapter I have prepared for a volume now in-press, Contending with Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom. I then briefly reviewed the evidence against in-school safety measures, prompting a student to ask what, then, should we do in schools.

Address our larger gun culture and violent communities, I explained, reminding the class that I have stressed again and again that they need to understand at least one essential lesson from our course: Schools mostly reflect communities and society, but they simply do very little to change anything.

I don’t like this message, but it is evidence-based, and I suppose, a liberal claim.

For many years, I have quickly refuted those who assume I am a partisan Democrat (I am not, never have been). I also have rejected labels of “liberal” and “progressive” for “critical” and “radical.”

But I feel the time is ripe for re-appropriating “liberal” when it is hurled as a slur.

In Trumplandia, to be fact-free is to be conservative, traditional, and to acknowledge evidence is to be liberal, progressive.

This is what the evidence reveals to those of us willing to see. Everything else is a lie.

There’s both sides for those who want it.


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College campuses are far from radical

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The Lazy Libertarian Lie: Paul Ryan Edition

Before the expected Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs” “Let me tell y’all what it’s like/Being male, middle-class, and white/It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe” response can envelope this post, I want to offer a few caveats.

I have strong libertarian tendencies, ones that have drawn me to a Henry David Thoreau sort of thinking grounded in rejecting authority and appreciating that adults should be allowed to live as they please within the constraints (see below) that acknowledge a simple but inescapable truth: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (John Donne, Meditation XVII).

And I know some self-declared Libertarians who are somewhat evangelical about their ideologies but, none the less, routinely demonstrate that they have souls—even as they haven’t rectified the disconnect between being a soulless Libertarian (a redundancy) and living life in any sort of humane way. And thus, I am not really holding forth below about those Libertarians who ultimately do not live by what they profess.

The lazy Libertarian lie depends on several failures of logic.

One is the “damned government” argument such as those who refuse to wear helmets while driving a motorcycle or rail against the shrinking areas allowing people to smoke (although laws still permit adults to smoke in their homes and cars while under-age and non-consenting children are present, and are thus inhaling the toxic smoke that the law prevents them to inhale by purchasing cigarettes).

This argument is, at its core, a fundamental cluelessness about individualism—in short, the lack of awareness, see Donne above, that individualism simply does not exist.

Taking risks—no helmet, smoking—never has consequences only for the risk taker. Trauma and illness resulting from this risk taking stress unnecessarily a health care system that impacts everyone else.

Despite these “I did it my way” risk takers’ choices, EMS and medical staff are ethically obligated to keep them alive, often a tremendous drain on their time and at great costs (trauma care in the ER and after, cancer treatment, etc.).

Another of the great logic fails is the “I built this” crowd, the ugly but enduring lie of the self-made billionaire.

All individual wealth in the U.S. is built on other people’s labor and facilitated by (brace yourself) the “damned government”; for example, there are no business ventures possible at the degree experienced in 2018 without the road and highway system in the U.S. (brace yourself: publicly funded).

And the entire free market fetish for property and personal property is possible only because of the legal and justice system that monitors a relatively high level of property safety.

And this brings us to poster boy Paul Ryan, an incredibly dishonest Libertarian (when it suits him) who cherry-picks his Ayn Rand adolescent rants.

Like the political Rands, and the cartoon Randites like Rush Limbaugh (who pronounces her first name as “Ann”), Ryan has profited handsomely from his white man Teflon and his American mythology sound bites grounded in lazy Libertarian lies.

Ryan lies about his athleticism.

And as James Fallows has documented, Ryan lies “in ways large and small.”

Behind the hairdo and the suits, Ryan has been trafficking in the racism and poverty-hating that some think was created by Trump.

Like Ayn Rand herself, Ryan has announced the end to his career in politics (brace yourself: Ryan is the “damned government”) and is poised to received $79,000 annually for life (brace yourself: tax dollars just handed to him for doing nothing).

Ultimately, Ryan embodies the great big pile of excrement that is the lazy Libertarian lie: My ideology is mostly about what I want for you, but not at all what I want for me.

You see, there simply are no rugged individuals. Not a damned single person who has pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.

Like the horrible literature and vapid philosophy of Ayn Rand, these are not enduring American myths, but calloused lies in no way grounded in reality.

They are designed to aggrandize the wealthy and demonize the poor; yet they are lies about both.

The sinister irony of these lazy Libertarian lies is that the wealthy and privileged are more likely to be the immoral and unethical class in the U.S. than the working class and poor.

My libertarian urges of boyhood, grounded in Thoreau and Emerson (not Rand), ended with my boyhood.

I grew up, physically, intellectually, and morally.

I recognize and appreciate collectivism, community, and collaboration.

A turning point for me was John Dewey’s pragmatism, an argument that either/or thinking fails humans. In short, Dewey argued that it is a false choice between individualism and collectivism—that they are symbiotic, not antithetical.

Any libertarian urges that remain—and they do because I certainly fear totalitarianism and regret that so little of life in the so-called “free” U.S. is actually free—are always tempered by what has come to be for me the greatest acknowledgement of the moral imperative of collectivism that grounds me, by Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

My freedom is inevitably bound to everyone else’s freedom—and this is the great moral truth denied by the lazy Libertarian lie.

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.

The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.

The little lies that feed into the Big Lie include that universities and professors, K-12 public schools, the mainstream media, and Hollywood are all powerful instruments of liberal propaganda.

These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.

These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.

The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.

Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.

The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.

Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”

But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted Barry Goldwater’s tactics foreshadowing Trump’s strategies and rise:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:

Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said. 

“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.” 

The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”

“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.

Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.

What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.

Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.

So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.

At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:

I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.

Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.

This is all cartoon and theater.

The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.

However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.

A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.

The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.

Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.

I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.

I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.

In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.

Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.

My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.

Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.

Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.

Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.

But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.

The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.

But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.

When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.

To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.

Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.

Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

My doctoral work was anchored significantly in John Dewey—highlighted, I recall, by discovering that Dewey had claimed we need not teach children to read because reading was something that naturally developed in children (and since he could not recall being taught explicitly to read).

I was struck by such a tremendous failure in a great thinker, one that exposes the dangers of assuming “my” experiences prove a generalization, especially when “my” experiences are ones of privilege.

When I posted Encouraging Students to Read: A Reader, this odd fact about Dewey came back to me when Peter Smagorinsky called me out, appropriately, for failing to acknowledge the middle-class assumptions beneath endorsing holistic approaches to teaching reading, ones that far too often have failed students who struggle to develop literacy due to class, race, gender, and other challenges.

I have noted before that progressivism, whole language, and balanced literacy have been misunderstood by politicians, the media, and the public, but we must also confront that practitioners have misunderstood and then implemented progressive and holistic approaches to literacy instruction in ways that have been extremely harmful to the exact students most in need of formal schooling.

The Dewey Paradox

Two aspects of Dewey’s progressive education philosophy are key in that context: (i) Dewey’s progressivism is steeped in idealism, leaning precariously on the edge of naturalistic views of children and learning (one that may be true if a child lives in privilege), and thus (ii) Dewey’s progressivism has mostly been misinterpreted and implemented in ways that do not reflect Dewey’s foundational commitments or serve many students well.

Not to be an apologist for Dewey, but to help clarify what many of us who stand on Dewey’s shoulders embrace (noting that I am a critical educator, and not a progressive), I recommend Dewey’s Experience and Education as well as Alan Ryan’s biography of Dewey (specifically his Chapter Four: The Pedagogue as Prophet).

For me, Dewey provided the seed for critical pedagogy to grow out of the soil of progressivism:

It is not too much to say that an educational philosophy which professes to be based on the idea of freedom may become as dogmatic as ever was the traditional education which is reacted against. For any theory and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles. (Experience and Education, p. 22)

In the reading wars, then, dogmatic commitments to either whole language or isolated phonics instruction instead of addressing the needs of each individual student to become a reader is the great failure Dewey himself would have acknowledged.

Misreading Dewey, however, has a long tradition itself. Lou LaBrant, a fervent Dewey progressive, wrote in 1931 a scathing attack on the project method, which claimed to be in the Dewey tradition:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Ryan’s biography achieves a manageable and complex picture of Dewey—one that Dewey failed to express clearly. But in that picture, we see the idealism noted above as well as a level of sophistication (for example, seeking to honor both the individual and community, instead of bowing to either/or thinking) that made Dewey hard for a general public and often inaccessible for practitioners who want the practical and not his pragmatic [1].

However, “Dewey himself argued that it was not enough to repudiate traditional education,” Ryan explains, adding:

It was not enough for progressive teachers to throw out everything the old schools had done, to replace discipline by chaos, a rigid syllabus with no syllabus. And Dewey was inclined to think that many schools had done exactly that and had used his name to justify it. The difficulty was to give an account of the educational experience that would elicit a kind of discipline, an approach to the syllabus and to the authority of the teacher in the classroom that would grow out of experience itself. (p. 282)

And it is here that I can speak directly to the great paradox of progressive and critical commitments in education, especially in terms of teaching literacy, as expressed by Dewey himself:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

Teaching for over thirty years while attempting to avoid prescription and indoctrination, to foster joy and pleasure in learning, and to provide all students with the content they deserve and need has often lead to paralysis since those commitments are overwhelming in their contradictions. I have never settled for decoding or even comprehension in any student—always demanding we rise to include critical literacy that requires that students have the decoding and comprehension as well.

Despite Dewey’s warning, dogmatism is easier, and as Ryan warned, Dewey’s progressivism demands more of teachers than traditional approaches. And thus, when faced with the most challenging populations of students, we too often take the path of least resistance, mis-serving those students along the way.

Enter Delpit: Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

What appears to have happened in formal education throughout the U.S. is that literacy education has increased the gaps among social classes and racial subgroups because too often than not we have failed to honor the balance between fostering a love and joy for language with the necessary skills to read and write—and the students who suffer the most in that failure have been racial minorities and impoverished children.

Affluent students are allowed to relish in the joy of language (reaping the advantages of their privilege, which includes a literacy growth that seems transparent to them, as it did to Dewey) in formal schooling, while struggling students (disproportionately children of color and impoverished) are sentenced to drudgery masquerading as literacy instruction, further disadvantaging them.

Middle-class norms drive a great deal of practice in formal schooling since the wider U.S. society is trapped in those middle-class norms (ones that include not only socioeconomic but also racial [read “white”] expectations) and since the teacher workforce in the U.S. is itself a middle-class profession dominated by white females.

These middle-class blinders can be observed in the misguided embracing of Ruby Payne’s stereotypes about poverty, the nearly universal acceptance of the “word gap,” and the “grit” narrative as a veneer for white privilege.

Just as Dewey’s progressivism needed a critical re-imagining from Paulo Freire and others, Freire’s critical pedagogy needed bell hooks and others to confront Freire’s paternalism.

Then, enter Lisa Delpit, who provides the confrontation of the failures of misunderstood progressivism and holistic approaches to literacy instruction—the failures that often misrepresent whole language but exist under that terminology (see Ryan’s point about Dewey’s complaints above).

Writing in 1996 about Delpit, Debora Viadero explains:

But Delpit is best-known for the bombs she has lobbed at some of contemporary education’s most sacred cows.

A decade ago, Delpit started penning a series of eloquent, plain-spoken essays in the Harvard Educational Review that questioned the validity of some popular teaching strategies for African-American students. The essays were spun off into a book, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, that was published last year by The New Press.

The problem, Delpit says in those writings, is not that whole-language reading instruction techniques or the process-writing approach to teaching writing are inherently bad. They work for some students–possibly most. They just do not work for everybody. And often the people they do not work for are children who, like Delpit herself, were born black and disenfranchised. What is more, these strategies might not work for children of any group that has strong, distinctive cultural roots and that stands on society’s perimeter peering in.

And while some continue to misrepresent Delpit in similar ways to how Dewey was/is misrepresented, Delpit offers to me the best understanding of achieving the balance Dewey sought.

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

And Monique Redeaux clarifies:

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

Like my progressive muse LaBrant, I remain convinced that reading programs—including prescriptive, systematic phonics programs—are “costume parties” that fail our students—and waste a tremendous amount of funding and instructional time, money and time better spent with authentic texts.

But when I endorse choice, independent reading, and access to books, like Delpit, I am not excusing those who idealize those commitments (through middle-class lenses) and then fail to teach reading (or writing) based on the needs of each student, some of whom will flourish with little guidance and some of whom need intensive and direct instruction.

It is no petty thing to acknowledge that a hungry or abused or frightened child will not find joy in reading when allowed choice, independent reading, and access to books because those do not address the burdens denying them that joy and learning opportunity. It is no petty thing either to note that taking struggling students and simply demanding they ignore their life’s inequities and complete phonics worksheets will not work as well.

As Dewey would stress, either/or thinking and dogmatism serve no one well when we are teaching children to read and write. Too often, that dogmatism has its roots in our middle-class privilege that, as with Dewey, blinds us to what our students need most from our teaching.

[1] As Ryan explains: “Dewey spent a great deal of his adult life explaining that ‘pragmatic’ did not mean ‘practical’ in a merely utilitarian and down-to-earth sense” (p. 225).

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

If you read a criticism of progressivism or whole language, I suspect you are reading one of two things:

  1. A misrepresentation of either so that the writer can attack the misrepresentation. Sometimes this is purposeful misrepresentation, but often the misrepresentation comes from carelessness or a lack of expertise.
  2. A confusion between the genuine principles of progressivism or whole language and how either has been misapplied in the real world. Both progressivism and whole language are terms claimed by those who also misunderstand the terms and concepts behind them. [1]

Since a number of blog and Twitter discussions have addressed both progressivism and then briefly whole language, I offer a reader on both below. [2] And my goal is not necessarily to endorse either progressivism or whole language (although I embrace many aspects of both), but to establish what each represents as a context for supporting or challenging either as being effective or misguided.

Progressivism

Progressivism is rightly associated with John Dewey, but Deweyan progressivism never found its way into mainstream public schools in any significant way. However, distortions of Dewey’s focus on project-based learning (see William Heard Kilpatrick’s The Project Method) have a long and illuminating history.

Thus, a great start to understanding progressivism is to read Lou LaBrant’s 1931 challenge to misguided use of projects. LaBrant is also a solid example of a genuine Deweyan progressive:

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

Another important aspect of progressivism is examining how the term and practices are often misrepresented as well as how rare authentic progressivism is in real-world classrooms; thus, see Alfie Kohn:

Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find

I have also placed progressivism in the context of traditional and critical ideologies:

Two-Headed Dragon of Education Policy

Whole Language

Like progressivism, whole language has suffered a long history of being blamed for failure even though it has almost never been implemented in any widespread or accurate way.

Did whole language destroy literacy in California? Nope. Read Stephen Krashen:

Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An Urban Legend from California

Does whole language call for no teaching of phonics? Nope. See more by Krashen:

The Phonics Debate: 2004

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction

See Alfie Kohn:

On Teaching Reading, Spelling, and Related Subjects

See also:

The Reading Wars: Phonics versus Whole Language 

Facts: On the nature of whole language education

Progressivism and whole language, then, share some important characteristics. Both are credible perspectives built on scholarship and research, but neither has found widespread or authentic places in traditional public school practices (both likely have had much more influence and success in private settings). However, both have been repeatedly blamed for so-called failures in the exact public school systems where neither is practiced.

Nonetheless, making a case for or against either progressivism or whole language would be better served if both are accurately identified.

[1] In a recent blog, I carelessly made mistake #2 by taking aim at behaviorism without clarifying I was focusing on how behaviorism often is misused in education; as a result of being called on this, I did apologize and reframe that blog.

[2] And since this is a general blog post related to a number of other blogs and Tweets, I want to be sure this doesn’t come off as sub blogging. Directly I have interacted with Annie Murphy PaulRobert Pondiscio, and Harry Webb in one way or the other about these topics.